Sex abuse in the Catholic Church:

Abusing rhetoric

posted by Mark Jordan

Many of these documents are appalling in the way that bureaucratic recitals of torture are appalling, in the way that ledgers of desecration are appalling. As I read them, I never want to ignore the mangled lives that they attempt so laboriously to contain—to conceal—within the boxes of church law or clinical psychology or (less frequently) moral theology.

I find mangled lives among those we now call the abused, but also among the abusers. I don’t say that lightly, abstractly. There are, in the identified abusers, some men who seem so far beyond our ordinary talk about ethics that they are “monsters” according to one old sense of the word. But there are other men—perfectly familiar, much sadder—who now get swept up into the same category of abuser.

I remember a former student. Once ordained a new priest, he began in his mid-20s what he viewed as a consensual sexual relationship with a 17-year-old.

Is it wrong for a Catholic priest to begin a sexual relationship with anyone committed to his pastoral care? Yes, it is, and for a number of reasons—including, in my view, because it violates a public vow of celibacy that underwrites claims to holy authority.

Is it worse when the person under care is below the legal age of consent? Yes, though I am less concerned with the legal age of consent than with the age of ethical agency. Both of these ages vary astonishingly by time, place, and person.

Is the sexual relationship in such a case always monstrous? Must the offending priest be treated for the rest of his life on the assumption that he is violently insane and irredeemably corrupt? Here I stop, not least because I remember that the rhetoric of monstrosity has regularly been deployed in church campaigns against sodomites—and in medico-legal judgments against a whole array of perverts that includes homosexuals. The current stigmatization of sex abusers in the Roman Catholic clergy is sometimes uncannily like old ecclesiastical or civil campaigns that most of us would deplore—campaigns against sodomites, witches, heretics, against child masturbators or hysterical mothers or congenital homosexuals.

Am I suggesting that we should tolerate or even affirm those who commit sexual abuse? No. I am suggesting that we should listen to the rhetoric of our condemnations, because whatever their justice, they often echo condemnations that would have been applied to many of us fifty years ago—that still are applied to many of us by the Catholic magisterium.

Let me raise three sorts of questions about the rhetoric in some appalling documents from the dossier of Robert Meffan—in regard to pathology, mysticism, and authority.

I begin with the wholesale incorporation into these documents of psychiatric or psychological categories and models, especially with regard to sex or sexuality. You can see this in the Review Board finding on Meffan, which not only cites as decisive a “personality profile,” but which deploys various psychological categories to describe him. You can also see, as in so many cases, an abuser being handed off to the therapeutic system. Indeed, the review board overrules the recommendation that Meffan be allowed to live with his cousin in order to enroll him in a “structured aftercare program.”

You discover here, as in other dossiers, the models and the mechanisms of various psychiatric theories. The models entered Catholic discourses in the last century without much reflection. There is a first wave shortly after 1900, when late nineteenth-century sexology is incorporated into some advanced confessors’ manuals. Then, from the 1940s on, pathological categories like “homosexuality” begin to appear in essays of moral theology, especially those written under the influence of psychoanalysis. Beginning in the 1950s, “homosexuality” and related categories figure in canonical documents—e.g., in the expert opinions submitted to diocesan tribunals or to the Roman Rota. From 1960 on, there is also a growing reliance on psychological testing of applicants to seminaries and religious orders, especially when it comes to sexuality. Increasingly, the clinician, not the spiritual director, is asked to render an expert judgment on a candidate’s suitability.

You are reading, then, a historically recent and variously motivated incorporation of clinical languages. I’m not suggesting that these languages have no place in talking about abuse or that church authorities should never rely on them. I do note that the institutional authority of the clinician functions incoherently beside older theological categories and traditional claims about church authority. In Scholastic theories, there was supposed to be a clear delegation of responsibility: the clinician could investigate natural pathologies empirically, but the spiritual director reserved for himself supernatural knowledge of the soul’s true condition and destiny. In hurried practice, church officials often deferred to prevailing psychiatric authority—especially when it came to sexual disorders. But how exactly was a pathological model of sexual abuse supposed to cohere with Scholastic theologies of sins against the sixth commandment?

To address this question well, a reader would need other documents not in Meffan’s dossier. For example, there should be samples from the history of the category “pedophilia” in other institutions, both the short history (say, the influence of the work of David Finkelhor) and the longer history (say, the 1867 case of Jouy described by Foucault in Abnormal and History of Sexuality Vol. 1).

A reader would also need to ask about the contrast between the ecclesiastical bureaucracy’s acceptance of clinical conclusions about pedophilia and its rejection of clinical conclusions about homosexuality—or masturbation. According to the letter on the “problem of homosexuality” published by the Vatican’s Congregation for the Doctrine of the Faith in 1986, “the Church can not only convert scientific discoveries to its use, but also transcend their perspective,” since its perspective is so much larger than the scientific. By what reasoning does “the Church” transcend the scientific perspective so completely on homosexuality as to reverse basic conclusions, while remaining within the perspective so completely in the case of pedophilia? Is this difference a matter of theological reasoning—or rather of the realities of legal liability and popular opinion? Would “the Church” prefer to “transcend” psychiatric accounts of pedophilia too if it could get away with doing so?

Maybe not. Church officials sometimes want to transcend psychiatry, but sometimes they want to use it. They have deployed various strategies to deflect blame for failing to restrain clerical abusers, not least by pinning abuse on the admission of gay candidates to seminary and the religious life. This deflection can be crude (as when it was floated at a Vatican news conference in February 2002) or indirect (as in the recently released second Jay College report). Either way, the strategy relies on the assumption of an immutable pathology: Homosexual men snuck into the priesthood. They suffer from a pathology that makes them commit sexual crimes. Everyone knows that we can’t be blamed for their pathology. We can’t do anything except kick them out—while we establish strict screening procedures to prevent any more of the sick perverts from sneaking in. In plainer English: We reject 1990s science about the natural origin of healthy homosexuality in favor of 1890s science about homosexuality as a fixed, criminal pathology. Is reverting to discredited scientific theories “transcending” science?

From questions raised by pathological language, I turn to more traditional theological rhetoric. In Meffan’s dossier, there are reports that he relied on the rhetoric of mystical theology. You can read his language for yourself in the startling statement signed “Prisoner of Love.” The use of theological or liturgical language to cover prohibited sex is nothing new. There are hints of it in the accusations Peter Damian makes against sodomitic priests in his Gomorran Book (from 1050 CE), and there is a surprising parallel to Meffan in the inquisitorial records from a convent in Pescia in the first quarter of the seventeenth century. The Theatine abbess, Benedetta Carlini, not only channeled Jesus’ commands that she should marry a younger nun in an elaborate wedding, but took on the person of a handsome angel, Splenditello, to conduct an erotic relationship with her (for all of which see Judith Brown, Immodest Acts).

I wish it were so simple as saying that Meffan abuses religious language to procure sexual gratification. That is what Peter Damian, patron saint of the theology of sodomy, wants us to believe, and it is suggested again by some of the testimony against Meffan. But I find the plea from the Prisoner of Love more troubling than that. Some parts of the text seem all too sincere: “I could still say Mass privately each morning, becoming one with my loving Christ. I could still tell Him over and over again that I loved Him.”

The possibility of authorizing abuse theologically follows too easily from the always exceptional status claimed for modern church power. In modern Catholic contexts, official languages often pretend to be exempt from qualification, questioning, or appeal. They are absolute languages. They function in a state of exception. When that rhetorical character is extended to traditional images of a masculinized God or angel who ravishes—rapes—souls that are gendered as feminine, then erotic domination seems to receive divine blessing. I’m not objecting to mystical writing. I’m pointing to a consequence of moving older mystical or liturgical languages into a modern system that endows some church speech with an incontestable and literal authority. Under a regime that claims divine exemption for its decrees, mustn’t erotic metaphors of divine domination sometimes seem to authorize sexual demands by priests? Turn the question around: imagine what you would have to change in present claims for church language to prevent the violent misapplication of old metaphors for God’s love.

Which brings me to the last rhetoric I want to mention: the homoerotic undertone of ecclesiastical obedience. The documents from the Meffan case are not homoerotic in the obvious sense—they are not about male-male or female-female abuse. They concern sexual acts between a man and girls or young women. But the male and female bodies here allow us to notice another level at which the homoerotic can appear in church speech. Take as an example Meffan’s letter to Cardinal Law, with its touches of studied obsequiousness, its acts of enticing submission. Those rhetorical gestures reveal desires sedimented in now standard forms of clerical power.

Whenever I was asked to contribute a sound-bite to the news coverage of the Boston cases in 2002, I tried to insist that the real scandal was not that there were abusers in the priesthood, but that they had been protected by church authority—not out of concern for their well-being or, God knows, for the safety of parishioners, but because of the hierarchical system’s imperative to protect itself. The scandal, I used to repeat, is the system.

Even that sound-bite has two meanings. It means that there is a large institution with all sorts of urgent motives for wanting to insure its authority, to keep its secrets, to protect its accumulated treasure. But the sound-bite also means that sexual abuse is coded into the system itself. It is expressed within the system before it is inflicted on those outside. We must listen to those who are abused by priests, but we should listen then for the cries of the abuse by which many priests are formed as priests. Abuse—not infrequently sexual, typically erotic—is required for this late-modern system of clerical power. It operates on the bodies of many children and adolescents, some of whom are being groomed for priesthood and religious life. Father says, “You have a vocation.” What appalling words those can be.

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